23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” –1 Corinthians 11:23-25
New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition
“The Institution of the Lord’s Supper”
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus and his closest friends and community were gathered for a ritual Jewish observance of Passover.
Passover is an observance of the way that God led the Israelites out from slavery in Egypt in a covenant of protection that was sealed with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb.
On the night of the Last Supper, the embodied God reveals that He will free the people from the tyranny of sin once again, but this time God himself will be the sacrifice of flesh and blood for all people.
Holy Eucharist is about as ‘meta’ as it comes. It is endlessly self-referential; the followers of Christ re-enact a revelation of sacrifice and salvation, that is in and of itself a re-enactment of a revelation of sacrifice and salvation, that is a product of sacrifice and salvation, and so on back to the source. Its origin is in an ancient Hebrew ritual of protection that predates Exodus, then as path to liberation from slavery in Egypt, and ultimately to a resurrection from literal death and salvation for all people. The sacrifice that is motherhood is not absent from this narrative either, as St. Augustine reminds us, “Jesus took His flesh from the flesh of Mary.”
Mary is the literal Tabernacle of God, there is no redemption story in Christ without the faith and acceptance Mary has of God’s Will. Moreover, charis is the Greek word for grace and it has its origins in fertility and beauty goddess. The chalice is often a feminine symbol and when filled with a red wine, well, its reasonable to draw some connections especially when one considers the way we pray to the Mother, “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.” Mary is the Eucharist just as much as her son, a fact which is very controversial within Christianity. For example, Catholics are accused of idolatry for their reverence to Mary but remain adamant that transubstantiation of the Eucharist can only occur if the individual performing the ritual has a penis because Jesus had a penis and apparently needed a wand to perform the trick. However, there are protestant sects that would disavow the worship of Mary but see no conflict in allowing a woman to preside over the Eucharist. Eucharistic theology has been in conflict since the ritual was formalized.
Before delving too deeply into Eucharistic theology, let’s go back in history.
The general consensus among scholars is that the Passover ritual predates Exodus. It was very likely an apotropaic rite, that is to say, a ritual of protection against evil or misfortune. Hyssop was used to daub the blood of sacrificial slaughtered spring lambs upon the lintels and the door posts to ensure that negative forces could not enter the home at the time of the Barley festival in which some of the first grains were offered to God. Cultural practices such as these as well as meticulous birth monitoring and population control by the Egyptian State were used to maintain the enslavement of Jewish people living within the same geographical space as their oppressors. The very fact that Moses could be accepted as an Egyptian, especially one of royal blood, reveals that the line dividing the oppressor from the oppressed could only be seen in cultural practices and identifying data. Although no evidence suggests that the Hebrews literally built the pyramids we can draw on conflicts between oppressor/oppressed populations in close proximity that shows how these tensions play out.
The story of Exodus and Egyptian history do not match cleanly, as seen in the trouble pinpointing what form of labor the Hebrews may have actually performed for the Egyptians. Historians are getting better at calibrating dates which have had a lot of variation between scholars over the years. We have more archaeological finds to draw from and we can date things with more precision. The generally accepted date of Exodus is roughly 1300 BCE when Ramses II was in power but this is very likely inaccurate because it doesn’t fit well with any of the known historic markers of the Bible. One of the main difficulties with this date is that it was selected after it was assumed that Ramses II was the most likely candidate as the Pharaoh of Exodus due to his character attributes rather than the historical markers of his reign.
Identifying a Pharaoh is no easy task. Pharaohs all had a handful of names that are very inconsistent and many records have been destroyed over the years. Trying to differentiate myth from reality is an equally difficult task for both the historians and the theologians because of notions of divine leadership which deliberately blur the lines between mythology and political conquest. There is one notable ruler who is mentioned in both the Midrash and Egyptian history. According to the Midrash, the Pharaoh of Exodus was named Adikam. He only ruled for four years before drowning in the Red Sea. The Pharaoh who preceded him, whose death prompted Moses’s return to Egypt (Exodus 2:23, 4:19), was named Malul and he ruled Egypt from age 6 to 100. This could be dismissed as yet another biblical exaggeration of age except that Egyptian records also mention a pharaoh who ruled from age 6 to 100. This pharaoh was the last to be buried in a great pyramid and oversaw what was essentially the complete ecological collapse of the Nile Valley.
A 3rd century BCE priest-historian named Manetho and an uncovered papyrus both mention this ruler whose names include Pepi II/Pepy II/Phiops II/Neferkara. He was the last great ruler of Egypt and after his death, Egypt succumbed to both civil battles and foreign invasions. No one knows entirely what happened and ‘stagnation’ is the generally accepted answer. Many researchers are now taking into account the effects of climate change on the region and the ill-fated reliance on extracting too many natural resources, relying too heavily on industrial agriculture, and a feudal system that devolved into outright enslavement. The Nile had gone through dry periods before but the economic context had dire consequences. The Nile failures coincided with weak leadership and a shrinking food and fresh water supply.
A papyrus dating to the dissolution of the Old Kingdom written by an observer named Ipuwer makes claims that sound very much like the plagues described in Exodus:
Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere.
The river is blood.
That is our water! That is our happiness! What shall we do in respect thereof? All is ruin!
Trees are destroyed.
No fruit or herbs are found…
Forsooth, gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire.
Forsooth, grain has perished on every side.
The land is not light [dark].
In this context, The Passover of Exodus reads to me very much as an anti-capitalist and anti-oppression text and I cannot help but hear the sounds of climate change in the description of the plagues that are very relevant today. Egypt was becoming a major economic and military powerhouse with an expanding empire. The business of empire building inherently calls for extreme labor from its slaves, such that the Pharoah was literally grinding up people and natural resources to build a kingdom befitting of a God. It’s really key to recognize that Pharoahs were in fact regarded as gods on earth which is a bad habit of many powerful monarchs the world over. The 10 Commandments offer some basic moral guidance but may actually be more functionally centered in forging a path to escape from slavery in a capitalist system.
In Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann argues that these commandments are about restoring individuals and cultures that have been undermined by slavery/economic oppression to a sustainable wholeness rather than a moral guideline. Refusing any gods beside the Hebrew God may very well have been about rejecting Pharoah and his capitalist system as ‘divine.’ A holy Sabbath was a sacred work-stop action. Using the name of the divine in vain could potentially refer to the fashioning of money or invoking a deity in a financial contract. Honoring the father and mother is a way to command respect of a generative or natural resource without abusing or over-using it. Coveting objects or people and helping yourself to them requires entitlement and objectification, both of which are agents of an abusive capitalist system.
In this context, Passover was the restoration of wholeness and unity to a marginalized culture. By calling about a ritual of protection, the Israelites could reaffirm the cultural bonds they had with one another that differentiated them from their oppressors. As Egypt falls into crisis, the Israelite come together in solidarity with unwavering faith so strong they could cross the Red Sea and towards the Promised Land to come.
Jesus honors Passover among his closest companions in act that is similar to Exodus but bigger because it extends to all people. It is a reminder of faith and a common culture in a time with the Jewish people were being oppressed by the Romans. Once again, Jewish practices and identities were marginalized by the State. In the time of Moses, Pharaoh ordered that all male Hebrew babies be drowned in the Nile. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Magi from the East came to King Herod to inquire about a newly born ‘King of the Jews’ whose star they had seen rise. These words troubled Herod greatly and he offered a weak lie that he certainly did not know of this momentous occasion but asked the Magi to continue on and let him know so that he too could worship. Herod wanted the update so that he could summarily execute this individual. The Magi were informed in a vision not to share their findings with him and as a result, Herod called for the execution of all the male infants to be on the safe side. Mary, Joseph, and their infant escaped to Egypt where they were safe until God called them back.
The Last Supper is very deeply in conversation with the Passover story on many levels and the objective of both stories is the same: liberation. Jesus was very much an insurrectionist against the Roman State and the embodied God was acting on a universal level as well as a local one. The task is no longer to liberate a specific group of people in one particular time and place but to liberate all those oppressed by their own sin or the sins of others committed against them. Establishing solidarity inside an oppressed population is a task so difficult it is always miraculous when it happens.
Holy Communion is a unifying force among Christians because it demonstrates the sacrifice the embodied God made for all of creation. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have passages in which Jesus Christ gathers his disciples for a final gathering in bread and wine are offered as his flesh and blood. Holy Communion is also a dis-unifying force because of the ways that different traditions interpret it. While Catholics are jokingly called cannibals for the routine consumption of their leader, Transubstantiation is the reiteration of the act of the divine becoming flesh and a prolonged meditation on this. Quakers are more focused on a worship of the Holy Spirit and believe that re-enacting the Last Supper would be too confining of ritual for the universal power of the divine. Some Christians believe that the Eucharist is the real presence of God but not in a literal transformation of bread into the actual flesh of God. Still others believe that the Eucharist is merely a symbol and a gathering point. Even within the same sect, there are varying interpretations and beliefs about what’s going on with the Holy Eucharist. We’ll examine modern rituals in Part II.